The ListHunt Startup Series: Part One

November 9, 2015
Henry Vasquez

The ListHunt Startup Series

Part One: Accelerate or Die –
the Techstars Experience

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Going through a top startup accelerator is a brutal, yet rewarding experience.

I don’t speak on behalf of Techstars or anyone else in my class. This is my experience as a participant of the Techstars Chicago program as the CEO of Tribe.

We found out that we had been accepted in mid-May for the program starting in early July. My co-founder Sam and I spent the month leading up to Techstars focused on our product, talking with investors, and giving our lives a little balance, knowing it would be all-consuming for 3.5 months. Sam had the brilliant idea of reading Bend the Curve (buy it!), a book that compiles the wisdom and experience of Techstars mentors. It gave us a much-needed perspective on what was ahead and how to take advantage of this unique experience.

The First Day

The first day of Techstars was eventful and full of surprises, like the first day of summer camp or the first day of college. We were assigned to our desks, two spots beside each other in a huge room full of our peers. There were around 45 people from the 10 Techstars companies working in the same space for the next 15 weeks. They gave us a nice little welcome package with a letter, some swag, and a few free books that would help us as founders.

The caliber of people in that room was awesome! We found out fairly quickly that we had the smallest team (2 people) and were the youngest company (4 months old). Some teams had already raised $500k or $50k/month of revenue. Some founders had previous exits and some serious expertise in their field. Everyone was wicked smart and had tremendous work ethic. Not once did I ever feel like any team in our cohort didn’t belong or couldn’t keep up.

They pulled the whole group together and dropped a big surprise on us. For the first day of Techstars, we were going to engage in a competition against our peers. A sales challenge, no less! Each team was tasked with getting as many signups for another local startup as they could possibly muster in 5 hours. You could run around the city looking for customers, whip open the laptop and use some digital marketing, or leverage your connections to reach a larger audience. Teams had to spend real money to get signups and would be rewarded with a real commission for their efforts.

I won’t lie, for at least 20 minutes there, I was scared shitless. I’m pretty decent at sales, but this was a real curveball and it was so hard to tell how well the other teams would do. I felt like there wasn’t an obvious winning strategy, so we had to test as much as we could. We decided to run experiments on face-to-face sales, phone calls to our network, craigslist ads, and an email blast. I would focus on sales and Sam would focus on marketing. For every approach, we made sure to remove signup friction from the process to make sure it was as easy as possible for people to sign up.

An hour into the process, we had 0 signups. Ouch! We had send out emails and I ran around talking to strangers. It felt pretty awful, and I was honestly worried we would end up in last place. I decided that it would be best to find a really dense location where our target customer would be. I ran as fast as I could to the location and started talking to strangers during their lunch break. I tallied my results and tested different lines to see what would work. 14 tallies in, I had nothing. I messaged Sam to let him know, and he still had 0 signups on his end. FML.

At around 2 hours in, I got my first signup! It was pretty sad, but it created a small glimmer of hope. I was able to get this person to invite a friend, and then we had 2. I started figuring out what was working, and hustling harder, until I had 8 signups. I got excited and reported back to Sam. He decided to switch approaches and go after the Craigslist ads, which would cost money. Since we were already ahead with the sales, we felt a little more confident spending money to acquire customers. The lesson here: unscalable sales teaches you quickly and gives you the confidence and momentum to invest in additional marketing efforts.

25 minutes later, Sam messaged me saying we had gotten 5 signups online. By that point, I had reached maybe 15 signups and wasn’t ready to quit. I told Sam to pour gas on the fire and run more ads. He opened another campaign and pulled in another 10 signups. When I finally reached 20 signups, I decided to pack it in and head back to the office to make sure all the information was entered correctly. When I returned, I found that Sam’s ads had brought in even more signups, and our old email campaign had pulled another 8-9 people in as well. We decided to go to the Techstars staff and ask if we should keep going or just stop. At this point, we could have easily turned on more ads and ran up the score, but we wanted to make sure that was what they wanted.

We were told to stop. There was only 20 minutes left, and we had clearly exceeded expectations. Sam and I were a little nervous that someone else had found something that worked and decided not to hold back, so we made damn sure that we had won and closed the faucet. When all was said and done, team Tribe came through victorious in the day one sales challenge. It was the only revenue we had ever generated as a company, and it made us feel great!

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We learned a few valuable lessons that day:

  1. Have a bias towards action. Planning is great, but getting shit done is more important.
  2. Divide and conquer. Learn how to specialize and trust your teammates.
  3. Do things that don’t scale. Start out by doing things manually, like face-to-face sales. This teaches you quickly and gives you the confidence and insight to pursue more automated methods.
  4. Build, measure, learn. Your instincts are great, but you should take a scientific approach when possible. Come up with a hypothesis and test it. Let the real data drive your decisions.

So that was it: day one of Techstars. We went home exhausted and feeling great. What we were totally unprepared for was the month ahead. They call it “Mentor Madness.”

Our Trophy for winning the challenge, which now proudly sits on my desk.

For more on the Techstars experience, continue here for Part Two.

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Tribe has gotten lots of press, here are links to other posts:

2 Comments. Leave new

[…] For part one of this series, “The First Day”, click here. […]

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[…] For part one of this series, “The First Day”, click here. For part two of this series, “Mentor Madness”, click here. For part three of this series, “Momentum and Metrics”, click here. For part four of this series, “Silicon Valley wants to Kill Email”, click here. […]

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